iPhone Portrait Mode tutorial

How to use iPhone Portrait Mode to take amazing portraits of people

▶ Watch the video guide for Portrait Mode in iPhone (Opens in a new tab)

What is iPhone Portrait Mode?

Photographers with DSLR or mirrorless cameras can take a more attractive selfie with a wider aperture setting. The wider the setting (such as f/1.4), the more blurry the background blur (or bokeh). The wide aperture causes background details such as people blowing up with photos or graffiti to scatter into abstract shapes and colors, allowing the eye to focus on the foreground subject of the image. You can use aperture priority mode to select a wider aperture, knowing that the camera will use a faster shutter speed to avoid overexposing the image.

In the default portrait mode, the iPhone’s camera app tends to automatically adjust the aperture and shutter speed to get the foreground and background sharp. If you shoot in low light and the subject is close to the camera, you can create background bokeh normally, but you don’t have manual control over the aperture setting when using the iPhone’s camera’s default photo mode.

However, if you scroll into the portrait mode of the camera app, you can add a distinctive DSLR-style background bokeh to your shots for a more professional selfie.

What iPhones have Portrait Mode?

Portrait Mode was first introduced on the iPhone 7 Plus in 2016 (but not available on the base iPhone 7). Every iPhone generation (Opens in a new tab) The model has since had the advantage.

We used iPhone 13 Pro Max to take and edit photos in this tutorial.

Before and After: With standard image mode (left) the background buildings are in sharp focus. With the vertical position (right) it is well jammed. (Photo credit: George Kearns)

How does iPhone Portrait Mode work?

In portrait mode, the camera app isolates the foreground subject from the background with a mask. You can then manually pull the depth slider to choose a wider aperture like f3.5. The iPhone then uses the mask to blur the background while keeping the foreground looking sharp. You can adjust the depth slider while framing your subject for a safe shot knowing that you can also adjust the amount of blur after the photo is taken using post-production tools in the iOS app or macOS Photos.

(Photo credit: George Kearns)

iPhone portrait mode: What are the strengths?

Because portrait mode uses software to mimic the bokeh produced by the aperture of a DSLR lens, this gives you more creative control over the bokeh of an iPhone image than you get with the baked bokeh produced by a DSLR camera. You can look at the portrait mode image in the Apple Photos app and use the depth slider to adjust the amount of blur to suit your creative requirements.

Unlike DSLR’s baked-in bokeh, you can adjust the strength of the background blur in Portrait mode while shooting (or afterward in the Adjust panel in the Apple Photos app as we see here.)

Another strength of Portrait is its ability to add lighting effects to your shots. Professional photographers can use an external flash or LED light to add modeling of the subject’s face. The light source from a side angle can highlight the facial features of the subject. Portrait mode contains a series of lighting presets that you can dial to produce a range of shapes. You can also use the mask created by portrait mode to completely remove the background of the shot, add high-level lighting, and mimic a white studio background. Check out our mini walkthrough (and the video that accompanies this tutorial) to see these software lighting effects in action.

(Photo credit: George Kearns)

iPhone portrait mode: What are the weaknesses?

Since portrait mode fakes the bokeh effect, it has its limitations. On older iPhones (like the 7 Plus), you can only add background blur to shots that show human faces. Portrait mode will not recognize or add a mask to other subjects. On newer iPhones (starting with the iPhone 11 onwards), you can use portrait mode to adjust bokeh behind people or objects. Sometimes portrait mode fails to recognize every detail of the background. Complex areas such as gaps in a subject’s hair may be missed when creating the mask, causing some background objects to remain sharp while others become blurred. This is less of an issue on newer Lidar-equipped iPhones like the iPhone 12 Pro (Opens in a new tab) and iPhone 12 Pro Max (Opens in a new tab) onwards. At an ultra-wide depth setting (such as f/1.4), the blur can erode into the edges of the foreground target, so you may need to order a slightly narrower aperture value for a more realistic bokeh effect. Another limitation of portrait mode is that you cannot capture a RAW (.dng) file when shooting in this mode.

Adjust bokeh with iPhone Portrait Mode

Step 1: Place the image

(Photo: © George Kearns)

With the default photo mode of the camera app, there is a slight blur in the background due to the iPhone’s proximity to the girl. However, background detail is still relatively sharp. With a DSLR, we can manually choose a wider aperture to further darken the background. To mimic this effect in the iPhone camera app, we need to scroll to portrait mode.

Step 2: Choose portrait mode

(Photo: © George Kearns)

By swiping to portrait mode, you’ll see the aperture value at the top left of your iPhone screen. In this case, the f/16 aperture is narrow, which results in a slightly blurry background that is characterized as distracting passers-by. By clicking on the aperture value, you can access the useful depth slider that enables you to dial in a different aperture value and add more blur to the background.

Step 3: Adjust the aperture value

(Photo: © George Kearns)

The f/16 aperture value in the top left changes to the f (f-stop) icon and the Depth slider appears. Here you can try different amounts of background blur by sliding the slider. You can adjust the aperture value before you take a shot and then adjust it later in the Photos app if it looks too blurry. Here we chose a wide f/2.2 aperture for blurry bokeh.

Lighting Effects on iPhone Portrait Mode

Step 1: studio light

(Photo: © George Kearns)

When shooting in portrait mode, you will notice square-shaped icons near the shutter button. By swiping from the default Natural Light icon to other presets, you can experiment with different stylistic lighting effects. Here we chose Studio Light. This gently brightens highlights on a target’s face and adds a subtle glow that smoothes skin tones for a more flattering complexion. In the Photos app, you can also adjust the intensity of the chosen light effect.

Step 2: Contour the light

(Photo: © George Kearns)

Ambient light adds more contrast to the midtones and highlights of the subject’s face. This “modeling” effect helps accentuate their facial features (as seen in the increased contrast around the highlights, midtones, and shadows on the cheekbones). As with bokeh blur in portrait mode, you can change lighting effects later in the Photos app.

Step 3: Single high key

(Photo: © George Kearns)

The most striking lighting effect is High-Key Light Mono. Created by portrait mode, this mask is used to completely isolate the subject from the background (as if photographed against a studio background). This results in a stunning monochrome image. You can create a black movie noir style background using the Stage Mono lighting preset.

Thank you very much for the model Mia @Layal.official (Opens in a new tab)

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